The Freaks and Follies of a Frontier Life II

Or, the finale to the slightly shady story of how Davenport became the county seat. 

Part Two: The Election(s) 

The 1837 legislature had made an effort to appoint county seats, but it was discovered that bribery had heavily influenced the nominations, so an act was passed stating that public elections for county seats would be given on the third Monday in February of 1838.  In each county, the town with the most votes would win.

In Scott County, only two towns were on the ballot: Davenport and Rockingham. 

As the polls were tallied, The Rockingham faction was confident.  The southern area had the biggest population, plus they had the support of the town of LeClaire, another southern river town. 

Imagine their surprise–and suspicions–when Davenport won.

According to pioneer settler and historian Willard Barrows (as quoted in the 1882 History of Scott County, Iowa), the answer was simple.  A few days before the election, the Davenporters had realized that they would be outvoted.  So they brought in cartloads of mine laborers from Dubuque, “the most wretched looking rowdies that had ever appeared in the streets of Davenport” to help make up the numbers.  These civic-minded voters cost their sponsors $3,000 and 10 barrels of whiskey, but the victory was considered worth the price.

While Davenport celebrated, however, Rockingham sent delegates to Territorial Governor Henry Dodge with proof that ringers had been hired.  The Governor refused to sign the confirmation and a second election was set for the following August.

This time, voters were held to a 60-day residency requirement before the election.  The voting returns were to be given by the county commissioner’s clerk (Ebeneezer Cook) to the sheriff of Dubuque County, who would count the votes in front of the Dubuque County Commissioners.  It was hoped that these measures would ensure a fair election.

Unfortunately, they did nothing of the sort.  Both sides rolled up their sleeves and began actively recruiting, bribing, and coercing voters.  The election itself was a flagrant exercise in dirty dealings.  Barrows reported that “The officers appointed to attend the polls were either not sworn at all, or sworn illegally, so that in case of defeat, a plea might be set up for a new election.  The ballot-box was stuffed . . . Non-residents of Scott County swore they were ‘old settlers,’ while the poll-books and ballot-box showed a list of names that no human tongue was ever found to answer to.”

The sheriff of Dubuque counted the votes, and Rockingham was the winner.  However, the Commissioners of Dubuque didn’t record the victory for some reason–instead they purged the polls, throwing out enough of Rockingham’s votes to give Davenport the majority, by two.

Rockingham naturally objected and the results were overthrown.  Yet another election was set by the legislature.  Winfield, a small section of land near the mouth of Duck Creek, was added to the ballot.

The election frenzy began again, but this time focused almost solely on bribery–or, put another way, on sizeable donations to the county.  Driven to win, Davenport finally pledged to give land for county buildings and to build them without using county funds.  But by this time, Rockingham had become tired of the whole thing and withdrew.  Little Winfield didn’t stand a chance, so Davenport was finally and definitely appointed the seat of Scott County in 1840. 

The entire town held a big celebration–after which the prominent citizens had to figure out how to pay for the land and buildings they had promised.  But that’s another story.

 Even after all this, there was apparently little acrimony left between the various factions.  As Barrows stated, “No personal feuds grew out of it, and to this day, it is often the source of much merriment among the old settlers, and is looked upon as only the freaks and follies of a frontier life.”

Of course, Barrows also claims that ‘during the whole of this controversy . . . the utmost of good feeling and gentlemanly conduct prevailed.”

But what else can you expect from a supporter of Rockingham?

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